Monthly Archives: March 2023

How I evaluate personal safety at tech conferences

How I think about safety at the events has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. When I was young and unmarried, I didn’t think about it at all. I’m 6’2”, heavy set, and broad shouldered; no one is going to mess with me. And regarding emotional safety, I may have had worries or concerns about fitting in or being accepted, but I never thought of it as safety.

That has changed over time, as I learn that other people’s lived experiences were dramatically different than mine. It changed when my female-presenting spouse was harassed at a SQL Saturday speaker’s dinner. I had made a joke to a speaker I just met that “my spouse only wears dresses 3 times per year, and one was at our wedding.” He made a joke in kind that would have been appropriate if we were friends for years. We had just met. Later that night when he made another comment, I had to quickly shut it down.

My appreciation for safety again changed when my husband came out as transgender. We’ve thankfully never had an issue at any event, and everyone we’ve talked to has been warm and welcoming. But now what was once background noise for me is something I pay close attention to, hoping I don’t hear sirens.

How should we think about safety?

The way many lucky people like myself normally think about the word safety is unhelpful in this context. 10 years ago, I would hear the word and think about muggings and stabbings. Now, I think a better analogy is food safety.

Think about how you evaluate leftovers in your fridge to see if they have gone bad. You think about how old they are, you give them a look, and a sniff. I can count the number of times I’ve had food poisoning on one hand, I will regularly eat undercooked food. I am privileged in that regard. But many of us have had bad experiences with old food. We’ve found mold or had food poisoning. One bad experience and you start just throwing it out instead of risking it.

Think about how you evaluate restaurants. Do you look at the inspection notices? If your friend says they had food poisoning there once, how does that change your evaluation? You might write it off as bad luck. What if three of your friends have had food poisoning at a restaurant? You’d probably never go there and would tell others to avoid it as well. It’s rarely a binary decision.

For some people, food safety is deadly serious. If you have a peanut allergy, one thoughtless mistake could kill you. For me, I’m a diabetic and I learned the hard way that IHOP puts pancake batter in their scrambled eggs. What the heck! If I hadn’t tasted something was off, that could have sent me to the hospital. And that’s often the issue, I can eat peanuts thoughtlessly and safely. But for others it could harm them or kill them.

How I evaluate safety at conferences

So coming back to our topic, imagine if at every single restaurant you didn’t know how fresh the food was, and no one could tell you. What would you do? You would inspect it. You’d check for mold or hairs, you would give it a sniff. You might give it a small taste. Or maybe you’d provide your own food because of too many past incidents.

Based on my own personal lived experiences and what I’ve heard from others, I believe this is what it’s like to be a woman or queer in IT. You always have to inspect and sniff the food. And unsurprisingly, the chef is likely to take this personally as an insult. “I would never serve bad food!”. Well, maybe not intentionally you wouldn’t. But I can’t afford to assume that.

In the book, The Speed of Trust, trust comes down 2 things at the end of the day: character and competence. As a speaker and an attendee, I’m constantly sniffing out these two things out at every single event I attend, all while trying not to offend the chef.

Character in this case is your ability to acknowledge and understand these issues. If your conference does not have a Code of Conduct, maybe you don’t understand the benefits of one, or you need help writing it thoughtfully. If your conference is adamantly unwilling to have a code conduct, that’s like denying food inspectors into your establishment because your chefs are “well-trained”. In which case, I have no interest in attending or supporting your event. You could send me to the hospital.

Competence is your ability to execute on your character. You may have the best of intentions here. But if you espouse a commitment to diversity or new speakers at your conference, but have a very short CFS or 100% blind submissions, that sends mixed messages. While I can’t determine the cause, I will assume that either your values are false or that there is a challenge in your ability to execute on them. Sometimes it’s totally innocent reasons, but if I have a peanut allergy I don’t give a damn about whether it was an accident that my meal included peanuts. I simply can’t afford to ignore it, for my own safety.

So what can you do to signal safety?

Simply put, talk the talk and walk the walk.

Have a code of conduct, have a policy for harassment. But more than that, think about how you support unrelated marginalized groups. If a conference provides child support, I will see that as a “smell” of good character and competence even if I don’t have a child. Conversely, if they put pronouns in the bios but have 0 other DEI initiatives, I will read that as virtue signaling. I could be wrong in either case, but all I have are sniffs and tastes.

Talk the talk and walk the walk.